Exercise Tales

Aaron Gouveia had been heavy all his life and hated how he looked as an adult. Yet somehow, he had picked up the false impression that only parents of girls need to worry about eating disorders and body dysmorphia issues and suchlike. But his four-year-old child was a boy, Will. So, what could possibly go wrong?

As a professional writer, Gouveia appreciated the language, its uses and misuses, and even felt confident that he had a way with words. All he wanted was “to get healthy, go to the gym and live longer to enjoy life with my son.” What he got instead was a big surprise — himself doing something “stupid and potentially harmful.” It started with an ordinary, even banal conversation, transcribed here:

Me: “OK buddy, I’ve gotta go to the gym for a run.”
Will: “Dada, why do you run?”
Me: “Because I’m too fat. So I run so I can get skinny like you.”

When Gouveia returned home, Will was running around like crazy. Eventually, the little boy explained, “I’m getting fat, so I needed to run like you, Dada.” After this incident, the child’s parents noticed that he did not like to be around them with his shirt off. He would stand on the bathroom scale in imitation of his father, and seemed preoccupied with “unhealthy body issues and an obsession with weight.” Gouveia wrote,

I thought I was setting a positive example by showing him that it’s important to exercise and be fit. I never meant to scare him or make him feel bad about himself, but I also failed to realize that by talking about myself negatively, it affects him too. To the point a 4-year-old had to exercise to avoid feeling fat.

Shrouded in history

The prevalent idea is that “fight or flight” is the basic choice an animal makes when threatened. If we go along with that proposition, then strenuous exercise is a perfect combination of those two solutions. Exercise is a useful and effective displacement behavior. Take running, for instance, which is pure flight.

In the old days, running made people happy because it enabled them to escape from dangerous predators. Now, if we run, the body helps the brain endure stress because it sends the same chemical message: “We are outrunning the monster. We are leaving the threat behind and getting away. Every second, we are farther from danger and closer to safety.” Well, of course, runners get high!

When a person puts on boxing gloves and hits a bag, that exercise is pure fight, and as long as the person is conscious, the brain gets the message it loves to hear: “We are beating the stuffing out of this enemy right now.” Other forms of exercise comprise different combinations of fight and flight, with documented positive effects, including stress relief. A tennis player who powerfully returns a serve is a hero who chases a large marauding animal from the village, at least internally.

What could be more rewarding than overcoming or outrunning an enemy? Nothing! Consequently, many people love to exercise because they are in very close communication with their own reward systems, and recognize a good thing when they feel it.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “My 4 Year-Old Thinks He’s Fat,” Medium.com, 09/21/20
Image by woodleywonderworks/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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